HC Deb 18 March 1958 vol 584 cc1090-6
50. Mr. H. Morrison

asked the Prime Minister whether he will now make a statement relating to his promised inquiries into the recent commercial television appearance of the Chief Information Officer of the Treasury.

The Prime Minister

Rules defining the circumstances in which officials may speak in radio or television programmes were laid down in February, 1956; and since then a substantial number of officials, including some information officers, have taken part in such programmes. No new precedent therefore was established on the occasion to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. The present system distinguishes between factual statements on the one hand and explanations and justifications of policy on the other. The latter of course must be reserved for Ministers. However, in this new and developing technique, the practice must be carefully watched and reviewed in the light of experience. I can assure the House that this is what we shall do.

Mr. Morrison

Is the Prime Minister aware that this broadcast, while being largely factual, was nevertheless tendentious and seemed to me to be liable to help the Government politically? [interruption.] Government supporters seem to think that that is necessary. Is the Prime Minister further aware that this serious departure took place under a Conservative Government in 1956, and that the Treasury Circular gives almost complete freedom to civil servants to broadcast, except on controversial and political matters that have to be defined in practice?

Can the Prime Minister say what the repercussions on the relations between the Civil Service and the Press will be? Are these officers to give first-person interviews, feature photographs and so on? Because the Press will be demanding that. Finally, is the right hon. Gentleman conscious of the fact that whatever the Government do in the way of weakening the impartiality and the special character of the Civil Service is making precedents for their successors in office?

The Prime Minister

I am very conscious of the difficulties, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for calling my attention to them in this way. This was an experiment. It is quite clear that what is purely factual is correct. Take at one end the extreme case of the daily reports on the weather which are made by the meteorological officers, who are civil servants. Nobody can object to that. At the other end are things which might merge into opinion rather than fact. We must be very careful about these. We have to watch this very carefully to see that it is not exceeded.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am quite conscious of the dangers and that when the experiment has run a little longer we will see whether some new directive ought to be made. With regard to the Press, I think there are well-established conventions in the relations between departmental information officers and the Press and that they have worked very well.

Mr. Morrison

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Press will now demand, and is beginning to demand, the same facilities for the Press as apply to broadcasting? Will he be good enough to have printed in the OFFICIAL REPORT the terms of the Treasury Circular of 1956, which deals with this matter?

The Prime Minister

I will consider that point. In a sense, the Circular has been published, since it was sent, I think, to all the Whitley organisations. I will consider that, and if there is no impropriety, I will see whether that is all right and the proper way. I can only repeat that we think this question wants very careful watching. I shall certainly see that we keep good control of it. The experiment is worth making in this new technique for a bit. It is certainly valuable in some directions, so long as it is not abused.

Mr. Gaitskell

In view of the importance of the Civil Service not only being impartial but appearing to be impartial, will the right hon. Gentleman look at the terms of the Treasury Circular again in the light of experience and see whether any modification is necessary?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, I will do that when we have a little more time. It might be a good thing to do in the course of this summer, when we see how things proceed.

Mr. Grimond

Can the Prime Minister give the House a little more explanation why he thinks it necessary to employ this type of civil servant at all? I can see that the people employed at the Meteorological Office are a different category altogether, but without prejudicing the question, might I ask why it is desirable to employ these civil servants?

The Prime Minister

With the enormous multiplicity of things affecting the public —things like road safety—I do not think anyone would object to civil servants explaining some of them. It is a question of degree, and we have to be very careful that we do not get into anything that can be called opinion rather than a mere statement of fact. I see the difficulties in certain realms of discussion.

Mr. G. Jeger

Does not the Prime Minister think that some of his difficulties could be solved were he to interchange some of these civil servants and let the Treasury officials give the weather reports and the weather men give the real economic statistics?

The Prime Minister

I am not sure whether the economic statistics would be better in that way or worse.

Mr. Gordon Walker

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be better to draw the line with extreme strictness between factual and political opinion and run no risk whatever—as I think is now being run—of blurring this distinction, which is vital to our whole system of government?

The Prime Minister

I hope that when I am able to circulate the Circular the right hon. Gentleman will look at it, when I shall be happy to receive any suggestion from him about its amendment. As he will know, it is one thing to lay down principles and another to carry them out in the spirit as well as in the letter, and that is the important thing.

Following is the Circular:

Treasury Chambers,

Great George Street,

London, S.W.1.

27th February, 1956.

Establishments Circular No. 9/56



1. I am directed by the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury to bring to your notice the following memorandum which discusses the limits within which it is suitable for a civil servant to broadcast or be televised.

Broadcasts on Sound Radio and Television by Civil Servants as Spokesmen of their Departments

2. There is no objection to a departmental spokesman broadcasting by sound radio or television on current departmental activities if the B.B.C. or I.T.A.* wish it and the Department decides that it is in the public interest. The decision in such cases should be made by the Permanent Secretary or some officer deputed by him, and in reaching it he should be guided by the following considerations:

  1. (a) Some topics cannot be discussed without political controversy and should clearly be handled by Ministers and not by civil servants. In general a civil servant should explain the day-to-day working of a policy adopted by the Government rather than develop the argument for the adoption of that policy.
  2. (b) The form of the broadcast is important. In sound radio there is firstly, the broadcast by a single person reading from a script. Secondly, there is the pre-arranged debate in which several speakers take part. Usually the argument is first rehearsed and a draft script prepared; the draft script is edited before the broadcast takes place and this gives those taking part in it a limited opportunity of correcting what they said at the rehearsal. Thirdly, there is the unrehearsed debate, such as a Brains Trust.
  3. (c) The B.B.C., however, is beginning to ask for more co-operation from Departments in the form of supplying civil servants to take part in television "actuality" programmes. The I.T.A. will probably do likewise. It is understood that Departments value highly these opportunities of making their services known to a wide circle who might benefit from them. There are, however, difficulties about television appearances more serious than there are about sound radio broadcasts. No first script may be available in advance. Sometimes the television producer supplies the civil servant with no more than a note or two indicating the line to be taken. He may have to appear under studio arc lights or in a roughly rehearsed actuality programme. He has to appear to speak impromptu, but he may forget his lines or recite them badly. The result may be that the information value of the programme is reduced and the prestige of the Civil Service as a whole is lowered. At the same time, as the years go by it is bound to become more and more common for civil servants to appear as such on television. If the public interest requires this the Service must meet the need just as it has had to learn to get on with the Press. There is an obvious need for safeguards, but not for prohibitions; for rather more caution perhaps at the outset than in sound broadcasts, until the medium is more familiar. When an invitation is accepted, the Department will no doubt consult its Public Relations or Chief Information Officer with a view to checking that
    • * The expression I.T.A, throughout this circular includes a programme company working under I.T.A. auspices.
    1095 there is proper rehearsal and generally ensuring that presentation is of the highest possible standard, that it reflects credit on the Civil Service, and that the Civil Servant broadcasting is described as such.
  4. (d) A departmental spokesman is more likely to be drawn on to matters of political controversy in a debate than in a statement read from a script. This does not mean that civil servants should never take part in debates, but if they do they must be warned to exercise special care. Moreover, only speakers who know how to deal with those questions which touch on political controversy should be selected to act as departmental spokesmen in this type of debate.
  5. (e) When a civil servant broadcasts, by sound or television, as a departmental spokesman there is no reason why his name and position should not be disclosed—though this does not imply that it is desirable that civil servants should build up radio or television personalities. The B.B.C. attach some importance to speakers' names being given, and the occasion may be used to add to the prestige of the civil service as a whole.
  6. (f) The B.B.C. or I.T.A. may make an approach through the Department or direct to the individual civil servant (in which case he should seek permission before broadcasting in an official capacity). In either event it is important that a prompt decision should be given.
  7. (g) Requests from B.B.C. and I.T.A should be dealt with on an equal footing If any special point arises about I.T.A. programmes, when their pattern has become more clear, it will be covered in a further circular.

Broadcasts on Sound Radio and Television by Civil Servants on Official Questions but not as Departmental Spokesmen

3. Civil Servants, particularly those in the professional and technical classes may sometimes be asked to broadcast by sound or television on topics of which they have specialist knowledge. This specialist knowledge may have been acquired in the course of official duties, and the subject matter of the broadcast may bear on current departmental activities. The civil servant is not acting as the accredited spokesman of his Department, but it may, nevertheless, be in the public interest for him to broacast. In such a case it will be for the Head of the Department concerned to decide (a) whether an invitation to broadcast may be accepted and (b) whether, even so, the proposed script (in the case of a sound broadcast) should be submitted to him before the broadcast is finally permitted. In reaching his decisions, the Head of the Department is asked to have in mind the same considerations as have been suggested in paragraph 2. In such cases there is no question of anonymity: the whole point of the broadcast is the civil servant's professional qualification to speak on the subject.

Broadcasts on Sound Radio and Television by Civil Servants in a Personal Capacity

4. Civil Servants are on occasion asked to broadcast on matters which have no bearing on their official duties but on which they have acquired a reputation in a purely personal capacity. For example, civil servants who in private life are authorities on bird watching or Chinese porcelain may be asked to broadcast on these subjects. In such cases the B.B.C. or I.T.A. may approach a civil servant direct, and the civil servant need not obtain official permission to broadcast. He must, however, remember that he is speaking as an individual and not as a civil servant, and that ordinarily his official position should not be mentioned.

Reference to the Treasury

5. In the past Departments have sometimes discussed with the Treasury proposals for broadcasts by civil servants in their Departments. The Department, however, should be in a better position than the Treasury to judge whether there is anything in the form or subject matter of the broadcast which in itself renders it desirable or undesirable for a civil servant to take part. In future, therefore, Departments should make their own decisions without reference to the Treasury, though the Treasury may be consulted, if desired, in any particular case. It would be most useful, however, if the Treasury could receive from Departments candid reports on the television appearances of members of their staff in order that some collection of experiences could be made centrally.

Acceptance of fees

6. The rules in Estacode K a 2, 3 will continue to apply to any payments for appearances on sound radio or television. However, where the actual appearance or the work of preparation for the broadcast involves private as well as official time, or where the official time is wholly or partly made up, Departments may at their discretion permit an officer to retain the whole or part of the fee as appropriate.

7. This Circular has been agreed with the Staff Side of the National Whitley Council.

The reports asked for in paragraph 5, and any questions on this Circular should be addressed to Mr. W. Kees (Extension 218).

I am,

Your obedient servant,